Vultures

Figure 1. Turkey vulture (Cathartes aura). Photo by USDI-Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS)-Pacific Southwest Region. 

Identification

Two species of vultures occur in North America. Turkey vultures (Cathartes aura, Figure 1) are larger than black vultures (Coragyps atratus, Figure 2). Both are scavengers and play an important role in removing carrion from the environment. 

Legal Status

Vultures are federally protected by the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, administered by the USDI-Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS). A permit is required to trap, kill, relocate, or otherwise handle vultures or their eggs. Federal and state permit applications are available from USDA-APHIS-Wildlife Services (WS). Permit applications are processed by the USFWS. The WS offers technical and operational assistance to the public and other government agencies. 

Physical Description

Turkey vultures are dark brown-black with a featherless, bright red head (adult) or brown head (juvenile), and a relatively long, narrow tail. The undersides of the wings are gray, except along the leading edges, which are black. Wing span averages 67 inches. Turkey vultures weigh about 4 pounds and may live up to 16 years. 

Figure 2. Black vulture (Coragyps atratus). Photo by Ken Thomas. 

Species Ranges

Turkey vultures have become abundant throughout the Northeast US (Figure 3). 

Figure 3. Distribution of the turkey vulture in North America. Image by Stephen M. Vantassel. 
Figure 4. Distribution of the black vulture in North America. Image by Stephen M. Vantassel. 

Range of the black vulture (Figure 4) is centered in the Southeast US, though they have extended their range northward into Maryland, Delaware, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania over the past 50 years. 

Voices and Sounds

Vultures hiss and grunt.  

Tracks and Signs

Vultures have a footprint with three distinct toes (Figure 4). They fly with their wings formed in a “V” shape (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Track of a turkey vulture. 
Image by Dee Ebbeka. 
Figure 5. Turkey vulture in flight. Note the gray primary and secondary feathers. Black vultures only have a silver patch on the primary feathers. Photo by Lee Karney.